British paratroopers looked on from a heavily armed jeep on Tuesday as hundreds of ethnic Macedonian civilians ventured back into Albanian rebel-controlled territory for the first time, to hold a religious service among the ruins of an Orthodox church destroyed in a bombing last week.
High in the hills above, rebels were clearly visible with rifles trained on the crowd beneath. The British soldiers had draped an outsize Union Flag over the back of their vehicle to ward off snipers.
It was the first sign of Nato "mission creep" in Macedonia, where Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is due to arrive on Thursday. Governments insist the troops, which include up to 1,900 Britons, are not here to act as peace-keepers or patrol any division of the country.
But a Parachute Regiment captain, who declined to give his name, said he and his men were in Lesok to show hundreds of ethnic Macedonians who came to the village on Tuesday to celebrate the Orthodox feast of the Assumption that the area, near the front line, was safe.
On the second day of weapons collections, more than 100 rebels formed an orderly queue to hand over their arms to British soldiers in the mountain village of Brodec, near the rebels' main base at Sipkovica. Rebel commanders insist the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA) are demobilising after they have handed over their weapons. They say they are surrendering their uniforms as well as arms, and witnesses have seen the NLA issuing demob papers.
But, in a disturbing sign for Nato, a commander known by the nom de guerre Xhaxhi warned that if Nato soldiers left after 30 days of weapons collections, as they are scheduled to do, the NLA would remobilise. "We will remobilise as soon as Nato leaves," he said. "And if Macedonian soldiers or paramilitaries attack our civilians, we will take up our positions again."
Whether Commander Xhaxhi speaks for all the rebels is not clear , but the NLA would dearly like to keep Nato in Macedonia as guarantors of a Western-brokered peace deal under which Albanians are to be granted more rights. Western officials are already saying privately that a longer-term commitment than the 30 days agreed may prove necessary in Macedonia.
Hundreds of Macedonian refugees drove through rebel-held streets where Albanian flags hung to reach Lesok Monastery, traditionally the site of the country's most important Assumption Service.
But all that was left of the church in which the service is held was a pile of broken rubble, after it was destroyed in a bombing last week. The worshippers lit thin yellow candles and placed them on the wreckage of the building's entrance, where they wilted in the remorseless sun. Members of the congregation, stumbling on pieces of shattered masonry, gathered round as an Orthodox priest swung a censer over them, sending clouds of incense into the air.
"Why are you British helping the Muslims?" asked one man angrily as the paratroops watched quietly. "We are Christians like you." Most of Macedonia's Albanian minority are Muslims, while the ethnic Macedonian majority are Orthodox. Some of the worshippers angrily threw stones at photographers perched on church ruins.
Nobody knows who bombed the church. The government accused the rebels while the rebels accused government agents provocateurs.
Most of those at yesterday's service were refugees from Lesok and nearby villages, ordered out of their homes when the rebels captured the area in fighting.
They are the next problem looming for Nato. They are supposed to be able to return home once the alliance has collected its target of 3,300 weapons but, watched over by the rebel snipers, none of them believed it.
This was the first time they had ventured back at all, and they only came in the safety of a huge convoy. Albanians watched the convoy pass from cafes where NLA badges hang on the walls beside photos of guerrillas in uniform.
Ilija Antonovski came with 10 refugees from Lesok who are all staying at his flat in the capital, Skopje. He has a weekend house in the village but he was emptying it of his possessions. "We will never be able to come back here,' he said, struggling to carry a television set out of his cottage.Reuse content